is in the future for Gods acre
November 13, 2003
by Michel Cicero
one kind favor Ill ask of you,
Theres one kind favor Ill ask of you,
Theres one kind favor Ill ask of you,
See that my grave is kept clean.
If its true that a society can be judged by how it treats its dead,
Venturans could well be on a slow train to Hell thanks to the citys
decision more than three decades ago to remove upwards of 600 tombstones
and burial markers from a dilapidated cemetery in the name of beautification.
The majority of todays visitors to the verdant Cemetery Park on the outskirts of downtown have no idea that 3,000 dead lay directly
underfoot. Were it not for the very occasional bronze grave marker, there
would be nothing to distinguish the park as a place of interment. One
man plans to change that.
Steve Schleder examines "a major
With his campaign to Restore St. Marys (the Catholic
portion of the cemeterys original name) Steve Schleder, an architectural
restoration expert, hopes to award due recognition to every individual
lying in an unmarked grave, irrespective of religious affiliation.
Youve got to respect the dead, said Schleder. Youve
got to respect the people whose shoulders youre standing on. Otherwise,
how can you have respect for yourself? You might as well march off into
Soylent Green machines.
Indeed, the official list of people buried there reads like a whos
who of Venturas founders. Foster, Olivas, Camarillo and Ortega are
but a few of the citys pioneer families permanently residing beneath
Cemetery Parks lush grass, as well as people whose names we see
on street signs,
but whose stories are unknown to most of us, like Dubbers, Thompson and
Arundell. The cemetery also served as a burial place for a number of war
heroes, Chinese-Americans, Jewish settlers and converted Catholic Chumash.
In the late 19th century, it was a no-brainer for the Church to use the
land near Aliso Lane and Poli Street for a cemetery. Downtown was but
a seedling and the hillside expanse, with its glorious ocean view, was
far enough outside the citys center not to conflict with its increasing
By the mid 1940s, the last person was laid to rest there, and the city
had acquired most of the cemetery by default. In a world increasingly
concerned with appearances, its high visibility near the entrance to downtown
became an issue. The cemetery was finally wiped clean of all funereal
vestiges in 1963, after the Los Angles Archdiocese deeded the Catholic
segment to the city.
According to city historian Richard Senate, only one person voiced opposition
to the improvement. But with the call to modernization ringing
like a church bell, history was being obliterated nationwide, so Ventura
was really not unique in its disregard for its forbears. Cemeteries
are great repositories of human history, said Senate, and
as such, they are important to us. But, he added, Its
a view that the city didnt share in the 1960s.
Catherine Barrier, a preservation advocate with the esteemed Los Angeles
Conservancy, said that a similar attitude toward preservation prevailed
throughout California in the 60s. She cited the clearance of the
magnificent Victorian homes on Bunker Hill in Los Angeles as an example
of the comparative lack of a preservation ethic in L.A.
Most of the laws enacted to protect burial grounds and historic places
werent in place until just after the cemetery was so severely altered.
Were the city to attempt a similar project today, some expensive and time-consuming
obstacles would, at the very least, slow the process down.
Though preservationists and historians find the cemeterys current
condition disgraceful, others like city clerk Barbara Kam stand behind
the decision to transform the cemetery into a public park. Kam said the
cemeterys condition in 1963 was more disrespectful to the dead than
the resulting removal of their headstones. The weeds were so overgrown,
she said, If you walked through [the cemetery] youd get lost.
It was like going through a corn maze. Worse still were the vandalism
and theft that plagued the unkempt graveyard. It even became trendy to
steal headstones and place them in ones garden, a gruesome hobby
for such a conservative community. This is why Kam feels that divesting
the cemetery of the headstones resulted in a beautiful and peaceful resting place for its permanent residents.
But while It was a real nightmare to clean up says Senate,
it could have been done in a better way. Using a historic
cemetery in Santa Barbara as a model, he described how, faced with a similar
situation, that city laid the tombstones flush with the earth instead
of removing them. Unfortunately, Ventura was never interested in restoration
as a solution. The collective opinion at the time was that the cemetery
was an eyesore, and in a city stumbling through a weak economy, it wasnt
exactly enhancing downtowns image.
Also at issue is the way in which the tombstones were disposed of. The
city has always claimed they attempted to contact descendants of the buried,
giving them a chance to claim the stones. While a few were reached, many
residents with family buried there say they were never contacted.
The headstones were subsequently relocated to a Parks Department storage
area in Hall Canyon, not far from the cemetery, where they were reportedly
arranged in alphabetical order. But residents there were understandably
spooked by the macabre spectacle, thus forcing the city to go to Plan
B. The city contends that the stones were then ground up and used to strengthen
the Santa Clara River levee near the Olivas Adobe. The irony of the Olivas
familys gravestones being snatched from their gravesites only to
be pulverized and relocated miles away to what was essentially their property,
was obviously lost on everyone. In 1993, following a nasty storm, a headstone
washed ashore at Surfers Point, causing some to question the citys
disposal story (though most agree that the stone found its way to the
beach via the hands of vandals).
Schleder hasnt given up hope, though. If it turned out that the
headstones were never ground up, but rather dumped, hed be the first
one to start loading them onto trucks and returning them to their rightful
While hed rather focus on simply rectifying what he calls a
very disrespectful holding pattern, Schleder feels the citys
treatment of the cemetery amounts to major heresy.
Barring any more mysterious reappearances of headstones, Restore
St. Marys goal is to provide a markerpreferably graniteinscribed
with the name, date of birth and date of death for each and every person
known to be buried at Cemetery Park.
Senate says that proposition begs the ancient question, Whos
gonna pay for it? Schleder, a devout Catholic, believes If
you can get a lot of people behind you, thats how miracles are performed.
Though somewhat idealistic, Schleders not naive. While he maintains
that money isnt the problem here, he also said he doesnt
see any quick fixes either.
One such solution might be, as Senate has suggested, to erect a monument
inscribed with the names of the interred. Back in the 60s, when the city
announced its decision to remove the headstones, it also promised to build
such a monument. That never happened. Schleder sees a monument as an easy
way out, saying it would be okay if everyone had died at the same time
in a major catastrophe, but it wouldnt speak to the importance of
the individuals whose short time here significantly impacted the city
we call home.
Schleder plans to raise public awareness via the preservation community
at large. Already, organizations outside Ventura County have shown interest
in the cause. He knows hes got a long road ahead of him, but Schleders
not fazed. Last week, he spent the better part of two hours in the dark
and supposedly quite haunted environs of Memorial Park (as its officially
known), rosary beads in hand, praying for the poor souls of St. Marys
for All Souls Day.
While Msgr. OBrien of the San Buenaventura Mission had no official
opinion regarding efforts to restore the old cemetery, he respectfully
acknowledged the sentiment behind it. Even though theyve turned
to dust, he said of the dead, we like to know where that dust